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Faculty Research Spotlight

Cathy Thomas, Curriculum & Instruction, Special Education Program

Diversifying Computer Science Education


Cathy Thomas and students

“The fourth grade students saw these TXST undergrads as role models, especially because our TXST students look like them, reflecting the diversity in our K-12 schools.”

Cathy Thomas and students

The field of computer science continues to grow. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, 2020) projects a 12% increase in jobs between now and the year 2028. Further, it is a well-paid profession, with median salaries ranging from $50,000 for computer support professionals to more than $122,000 for computer research scientists.However, the field of computer science is not diverse historically, with underrepresentation by gender, race, ethnicity, and disability (Google Inc. &. Gallup, Inc., 2016).  In response to this lack of diversity, momentum has been building to more fully integrate school-based computer science learning opportunities for younger children. This push has been led by code.org and by President Obama’s CS4All initiative. Recent data shows that opportunities are increasing (2019 State of Computer Science Education), but the best materials and methods for providing equitable opportunities for computer science learning, particularly at the elementary level, are still unfolding.

My project, Comprehending Code, an NSF-funded EHR Core Research project, addresses this critical need. The long-term broader impact of projects like mine is the potential to make significant contributions to the diversification of the computer science field, particularly for the highest-level positions (Gates, 2019). The short-term impact is to provide equitable, accessible, developmentally appropriate computer science curriculum to younger children and to support teachers in learning to teach computer science and computational thinking.

Cathy Thomas and students

Anecdotes in the Field

Let me share a few anecdotes illustrating some of this impact in action. These examples come from working with fourth grade teachers and their students.

To help teachers learn to teach coding, and in many cases, learn to code themselves, we hired undergraduate computer science students from Texas State University and trained them to serve as coaches. Many of these students were awarded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) support from NSF. Each TXST computer science (CS) student met with a participating teacher once per week to plan and once per week to support instruction. The fourth grade students saw these TXST undergrads as role models, especially because our TXST students look like them, reflecting the diversity in our K-12 schools. Our TXST students are much more diverse than the general CS workforce, and like our student body at TXST, include first generation college students, women, Hispanic students, bilingual students, and African American students. The fourth graders and TXST CS students have become very attached to each other. Since the pandemic, one of the CS students has talked about how he misses his students and didn’t really get to say good-bye. He keeps a picture on his fridge that a fourth grader drew for him of a favorite Dragon Ball Z character.

Cathy Thomas and students

One of the TXST CS students worked with an older, more experienced teacher who had never done any coding or had any opportunities in computer science but wanted her fourth graders to have those opportunities. The CS student really enjoyed seeing the teacher learn—initially, the teacher was lost and intimidated by the new curriculum and skills, but over the year her knowledge blossomed, and she gained confidence. By the end of the year, she had a great system down for teaching and supporting her students in their CS learning. This teacher can continue to offer CS experiences to her future students.

During a teacher interview, which is part of our data collection, one of the teachers reflected on his students’ successes and recalled a particular student who always struggled with reading as well as with completing typical school assignments. In one CS lesson, the students were learning about sequences and this student just took off with it. Not only did he have success with the project, but he was the first one to complete it that day, significantly ahead of all of his peers, and further, he completed it without mistakes. His teacher cheered on this accomplishment and encouraged him by saying, "You read it, you achieved it!" One goal of this project was to create inclusivity and access for all learners, so hearing stories like these has been very reinforcing to us as researchers.

Cathy Thomas and students

Acknowledgements

I have been so fortunate to partner in this collaborative work with Dr. Diana Franklin from the University of Chicago. She initiated this project, and it is her vision and willingness to truly embrace interdisciplinary work that melds education, special education, and computer science learning that has made this project successful. The teaching and learning strategies we developed together have had significant outcomes on computer science learning for children who are diverse by gender, race, ethnicity, language, socio-economic status, and disability status, and who are situated in under-resourced schools.

I am grateful to Austin Independent School District for allowing this research. I appreciate Jean Salac, doctoral student at UChicago, as well as the graduate and undergraduate research assistants from special education, school psychology, and computer science here at Texas State University for sharing their talents and commitment in implementing this research and collecting data. 

Cathy Thomas and students

NSF Funding Tips

The National Science Foundation is funding this project. I would advise people interested in funding to do several things: (a) build your team to include interdisciplinary expertise, (b) have very specific observable and measurable project objectives that are focused on gaps in current knowledge and based on the best available theory, (c) demonstrate that you have the resources to do the work, (d) don’t try to do too much, and (e) be very focused on the broader societal outcomes—why should anyone care about your work, and what impact could it have for the future of the field?  One of my professors called this the “who cares or why would it possibly matter in 30 years?” caveat to guide your thinking.